Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Latin Jazz Festival

This report comes from a client who recently returned from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. She asked for something unique and, based on her interests, we recommended the 4th annual Jazz Fest on the Mayan Riviera. This trip was a last-minute suprise for extended family. Family members arrived in Port Townsend for Thanksgiving with plans to stay in Washington all week. The day after the dishes were cleaned, the entire family boarded a flight for Mamitas Beach Club on Playa del Carmen.

While this area is famed for it's beaches, jungles, and Mayan archealogical sites, the Jazz Festival has already grown to be one of the top annual jazz events worldwide. Performers this year included Grammy award winners from Brazil and the U.S. Young & old family members were equally impressed to find Tower of Power and George Benson at the beach, under the stars, with a sea breeze that carried the music with style.

Based on the reviews we received, we recommend booking accomodations for this event early in 2008. Suprise those you are most thankful for and give the gift of travel.

Peace & Prosperity,

Mango Steve

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Avocados & Latin America

Latin American Avocado Growers & California Fires

Avocados are native to Mexico, C. & S. America. While imports from these regions have grown since 1994's Nafta reduced tariffs, California's San Diego County supplies most of U.S. demand. This summer's fires have damaged 20% of San Deigo's 26,000 acres of avocados. This paves the way for increased imports this year. Pictured here are workers in Uruapan, Michoacan packing avocados for export.

Unfortunately the Chilean avocado crop is down 50% due to a hard freeze in July. This paves the way for Mexico to dramatically increase it's exports to the U.S. Until a few years ago, San Diego County's grower's associations were effective in blocking Mexico's crop through bogus claims of fruit fly issues. The real issue was always the grower's (largely doctors & lawyers) desire to make a killing over-charging for their products in the absence of competition.

There was a similar move by mango growers in Florida to block Mexican mangos from entering the U.S. They didn't want to see consumers enjoy a superior product for a reasonable price, because they couldn't compete. Japan, the masters of incoming quality control processes, repeatedely testified to the U.S. Congress about the absence of any fruit fly issues. Finally the tariffs and restrictions on Mexican mangos and avocados have been lifted. This year, for the first time in 100 years, Mexican avocado growers can ship their product throughout the U.S., even to California.

The earliest record of avocados comes from Peru. A mummy from 800 BC was uncovered with avocado seeds. They were most likely buried with the dead due to aphrodisiac qualities that could prove useful in the afterlife. The Aztec word for avocado is Ahuacuatl meaning testicle tree. Note the fruit of the tree hangs in pairs. Cortez conquered Mexico in 1519 to find avocados everywhere. Today, the state of Michoacan is the avocado capital of the Americas.

Not until 1926 did Mr. Hass discovered the avocado that bears his name. Today there are more than 40,000 acres of avocados in California, over 60% in San Diego County. Before the fire, California had been expected to harvest 338 million pounds this season, according to the Hass Avocado Board.

Chile would have shipped 260 million pounds to the U.S. but July's freeze will limit Chile's exports to about half that amount. Chile's avocados often have more oil than California's, making for a smoother texture. Chilean avocados are grown in the Central Valley, mainly between Petorca and Rancagua. But the transit distance to the U.S. is not easy of this delicate fruit.
Mexico is now expected to ship 425 million pounds this year, a 24% increase over last year's exports. Both avocado and mango consumption have tripled in the U.S. in the past 10 years, and the best place to grow these tropical delights is "south of the border" ... for quality, yield, and price.

Yes, I'm a travel consultant now, but it's fun to keep my pulse on the tropical fruit industry I knew so well during one magical decade of my youth.

Ciao! Mango Steve

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Keep the tropics tropical

Our Carbon Karma

Travel is good for your soul and for humanity, but it is hard on our ecology and the environment. Airline travel creates a significant proportion of the world's global warming pollution, and it's growing faster than any other single source. Flying roundtrip from Seattle to C. America (7,000 miles) creates over one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, per passenger.

Changes In Latitude partners with TerraPass to help balance this equation. Changes In Latitude purchases greenhouse gas reduction offsets in the form of one Intercontinental Terrapass per client, which covers per passenger emissions from 20,000 miles of jet travel. TerraPass works by funding clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction projects throughout the U.S., including wind farms and biomass energy. TerraPass iis ndependently audited by the non-profit Center for Resource Solutions, the leading certification agency in the renewable energy market.

If you would like to make an even greater impact, purchase a TerraPass to balance out the global warming impact of your driving and home energy use, or make a donation to Trees for the Future, winner of the United Nation's Earth Trusteeship Award. Trees for the Future plants trees in the humid tropics. Each tree absorbs one ton of carbon dioxide over it’s average lifetime of 40 years. Reforestation is part of the solution.

Join the global movement and “Take the Pledge” designed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore to solve the climate crisis.

Keep the tropics tropical!
~ Mango Steve

Monday, August 27, 2007

Casco Antigua

Modern Panama City, home to 8 of Latin America´s 10 tallest skyscapers, is actually the third city. Casco Antigua is the 2nd Panama City, and my personal favorite. It is an architectual wonder. Pictured here is the plaza inside the governor´s palace. The 1st city was sacked by Henry Morgan. This story is told in the great pirate book entitled ¨The Sack of Panama". The original city site, Panama Viejo, had been founded in 1519 and abandoned in favor of a more defensible site, now called Casco Antigua, in 1673. You can and should visit both. Casco Antigua provides a stark contrast as you walk many blocks of magnificent old edificios while gazing across the bay at the modern steel and glass skyscape. Here you will find cobblestone and brick streets, wonderful museums, cafes, art galleries, gift shops, and many artisans displaying their work. I recommend you save at least a half day to stroll the streets of Casco Antigua ... or several half-days, if you have the time. I am returning this evening to enjoy the sunset.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Coffee Heaven

Coffee from Panama has won the international cupping contest during seven of the last 11 years. Three times the winner was Cafe Ruiz, which we toured today. The other two winners are Cafe Lerida & Cafe Geisha. These small-scale family farms choose the environmentally friendly, shade grown technique. Coffee is grown beneath fruit and native hardwood trees. In this picture from Cafe Ruiz you see a hummingbird nest in the coffee tree.

Cafe Ruiz is located in the Boquete valley, pictured below. Boquete is situated in the rainforest of the fertile western highlands of Panama. Here the cloud forest´s abundant moisture and the volcanic soil combine with ideal growing conditions to produce some of the world´s best coffee. Panama is at the same latitude as Ethiopia which is home to the Arabica tree, the oldest and best tasting species of coffee in the world.

Coffee is harvested by hand in Boquete, from October through March. There is amazing attention to quality through the following 12-step process, according to our guide Israel of Casa Ruiz:

  1. Selection by hand of only ripe beans.
  2. Sorting by density with water. Beans that float indicate damage from insects, fungus, or sunlight, so only the beans that sink are utilized. Floaters are sold to other companies which put their brand on the coffee - Cafe Ruiz will not.
  3. Pulping to remove the liquid that would lead to over fermentation.
  4. Fermentation
  5. Washing
  6. Drying
  7. Resting to age the beans for 4 months to allow for detection of defects that passed through the processes above.
  8. Peeling off the parchment.
  9. Sorting by size (there are 13 sizes), density by air (weight), and color. Only the green beans go forward. Yellow indicates the bean was picked too soon, black too late, and blue or red indicate fungus.
  10. The good sizes are mixed back together.
  11. Batch roasting to allow for selection by taste.
  12. Final grading
There are three grades:

Specialty - for export. This grade constitutes 80% of the yield of Casa Ruiz farms. There are 11 major farms and many other small, family farms which bring their beans to Casa Ruiz for processing.

Premium - This grade receives all the processing above, except for color processing, and is not exported.

Standard - This grade is also for the domestic market.

The most award-winning farm in the Casa Ruiz enterprise is La Berlina, which sells for $25 - $50 per pound, at the farm, depending on the yield in any given year. It consistently places in French, USA, and Panamanian cupping competitions. I bought some of this for my friend Seth, who is a coffee aficionado, and will post his remarks soon.

Cafe Geisha has sold for up to $130 per pound, at the farm. Sorry Seth, I can´t afford it!

Cafe Ruiz doesn´t export roasted coffee, but they do roast. We saw the company´s first roaster - a bowl that was placed in a fire, their first roasting machine, from France, and every machine they have used since then. Five roasts are observed. Approximate times follow:

  1. Gourmet - 13 minutes
  2. European - 14 minutes
  3. Latin - 15 minutes
  4. Italian - 18 minutes
  5. French - 20 minutes, at which point the beans lose all subtle flavors and become like Starbuck´s beans - burnt.

We had the pleasure of meeting Plinio Ruiz, son of the 85-year old Plinio Ruiz who was the 2nd generation of coffee growers behind his father who homesteaded in Boquete in the 1890´s.

Join us in October and we´ll tour the fields, processing plants, roasting room, and cafe!

To buy coffee from C. America in the USA, roasted by my friend Seth the same day he ships it to you, visit http://www.uniquecoffee.com/ (Seth stocks Cafe Ruiz when available.)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Isla Cañas

Thousands of sea turtles nest on Isla Cañas every year between August and October. This island is a marine preserve near Panama´s southernmost tip on the Azuero Peninsula. Visitors are welcomed at an intepretive center before heading to the beach. We watched this beautiful pageant after a horse-drawn carriage ride along the beach. After dark, the Hawksbill turtes dig a nest with their fins and lay 80 - 100 eggs each. Green, loggerhead, and sometimes leatherback turtles also nest here. The mothers disguise their nests on the moonlit beach and return to the sea while their eggs incubate in the warm sand. The entire process takes less than 30 minutes ... locating a site, digging the hole, laying the eggs, filling the hole, tamping the ground, and covering the site. They will return before the eggs hatch. Visitors in October will be greeted by baby turtles. This tour returns to the mainland after midnight. We overnight at Playa Venao, one of Panama´s best surfing beaches. Surfers, bring your boards!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

La Amistad International Park - World Heritage Site

Amazingly, you can boat all the way from Panama´s Bocas del Toro up the Rio Changuinola and connect to the Rio Teribe to reach the rainforest by water. The Naso bring sustainable agriculture to new heights. The Naso Kingdom is the last kingdom in the Americas. Each family farms what it needs and there are also communal farms. Here a raft carries extra produce for sale to Caribbean communities down river.

A journey into a Naso home brings shared stories, songs, dances, and food. Pure happiness and pride is evident in the absence of machines. The rainforest provides the Naso everything needed to sustain a good life. The Naso political system is a model with much to offer to the world. This is an excellent destination for children to compare and contrast the simple life with the technological life. Mine were inspired, not to give up their computers, but to view their importance in a different context.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Bastimentos National Marine Park

One of the highlights of Panama´s Bocas del Toro is snorkeling in the coral forest in the National Marine Reserve. There is also an interpretive trail hike into the island, lunch hanging over the Caribbean, and a long boat ride through the many islands that make up the archipelago. The beach at our snorkeling site was as perfect as any I´ve found. - Mango Steve

Bocas del Toro

This Caribbean paradise is little known but it´s catching on fast since long-time visitors to Costa Rica discovered Panama´s Bocas del Toro has more to offer ...without the crowds. We stayed on Isla Careneros but there are many islands offering dozens of family-run lodging options. Water taxis outnumber cars in the islands 100 to 1. Only the main island has cars, but we walked from the airport to the water taxi terminal and saved $1. - Mango Steve

Friday, May 25, 2007


This is the dawn of my travel blog which will provide "digital postcards" from paradise beginning in August 2007.